Prominent U.S. statesman Stephen A. Douglas died at age 48 in his suite at Chicago’s Tremont House. The “Little Giant” had defeated Abraham Lincoln for a U.S. Senate seat in 1858, then lost to Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election. Douglas had been suffering from several illnesses, including rheumatism, but he was not expected to die until he contracted typhoid fever.
Douglas had opposed many of President Lincoln’s Republican policies, but he was instrumental in strengthening Democratic support for Lincoln’s war policies. He strongly opposed secession and publicly endorsed Lincoln’s militia proclamation of April 15. This helped form the basis of a political faction that became known as the War Democrats.
Before losing his strength, Douglas dictated a letter to the chairman of the Illinois Democratic committee, urging Americans to support the Union in the war “being waged against the United States for the avowed purpose of producing a permanent disruption of the Union and a total destruction of its government.” Douglas had hoped that southern Unionists might have prevented secession, and lamented that secessionists wanted “to obliterate the United States from the map of the world.” Douglas concluded that only “a loyal patriot” could be a Democrat.
The grueling efforts to preserve the Union, combined with financial difficulties and long political campaigning, finally took their toll on Douglas. Before dying he offered advice to his sons: “Tell them to obey the laws and support the Constitution of the United States.”
The day after Douglas’s death, Secretary of War Simon Cameron announced to all Federal forces “the death of a great statesman… a man who nobly discarded party for his country.” Douglas’s opponents argued that in so doing he split the Democratic Party beyond repair, thus dooming the country to unchecked Republican rule.
The funeral of Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois took place in Washington on the 7th. In Douglas’s honor, government buildings, businesses, and public schools closed throughout the North, and the White House was draped in black. President Lincoln received no visitors on the day of Douglas’s funeral. The War Department declared Douglas’s death “a national calamity” and issued orders for regiments to drape their colors in black crepe.
Republican Senator Orville Browning of Illinois saw Douglas’s passion for the Union as “almost sublime” and believed that the Little Giant had “a conspicuous niche in the temple of fame.” Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens, who had known Douglas as a member of the U.S. Congress, wrote that the timing of Douglas’s death had been most unfortunate. Had he died before the 1860 Democratic Convention at Charleston, there may have been a better chance at compromise between North and South. “Had he lived,” Stephens wrote, “he might have exerted great power in staying the North from aggressive war. I can but think this would have been his position. He would have been against attempted subjugation. He would have been for a treaty of recognition & for peace.”
- Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), The Coming Fury: Centennial History of the Civil War Book 1. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1961.
- Cochran, Michael T. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.